[This book review appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 245-256.  It was written by Dwight Murphey upon the request of the editor of the Journal, Dr. Roger Pearson, and then modified by Pearson to reflect his own thinking.  It is thus not an independently written, critical review; but it has the advantage of telling readers how Murphey perceived his own work and its significance.]   


Liberalism in Contemporary America

Dwight D. Murphey

Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1992


            Author Dwight D. Murphey has made a singular contribution to the political history of our times with his epic book, Liberalism in Contemporary America.

            Even in the open society of late-twentieth century America, a scholar who is simultaneously serious, honest and independent is unlikely to gain widespread popularity.  Those whose ideas are bred from the urge to protect specific interests, those who approach an understand of life and of society through immovable preconceptions, those who adhere to views for the sake of winning the applause of an existing constituency, no matter how small, will not embrace him.  His insights will have been too free, too little subject to capture.  It is only when the inevitable accretion of his work begins slowly to catch the attention—first of a few and then of an ever-widening circle—that he begins to become known.  It has been our pleasure during the past two years to have been part of that process in the case of Professor Murphey.  When, not long ago, he finished his twenty year book-writing project, he found time to become a frequent contributor of articles to The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, and to the Conservative Review—and his involvement has been such that he is now the associate editor of both journals.

            To place Liberalism in Contemporary America in the context of the author’s thought, it is important to realize that it is the culmination of many years of work.  Murphey’s first book, Emergent Man, was self-published in 1962.  He wrote the initial draft as a young man of twenty-one, “holed up” nights and weekends in a room off-base from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where he was stationed after his combat training at Camp Pendleton.  After his two-year stint in the Marine Corps, he attended the famous seminar and classes offered by the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises at New York University.  He prepared the second draft of Emergent Man only after his graduation from the University of Denver College of Law in 1959.   This book spelled out the details of his own model of a free society based on the “classical liberal” principles of limited government and a market economy.  He still sees that book as the foundation of his thought, conditioned primarily by a heightened awareness—augmented by the searing events of and since the Sixties—of just how much freedom (which he perceived improperly as a Sartre-type “do your own thing” idealization of irresponsibility) can be abused and of how important the conservative cements are to civilized life.  [Note in 2007: The parenthetical statement just made that refers to Sartre was inserted by Dr. Pearson, but in fact Murphey had at no point, even in his very libertarian Emergent Man, idealized a type of individualism divorced from strong ethical obligations.  In fact, he sees his emphasis on the ethical and institutional prerequisites of a free society as one of the principal points  distinguishing his views from those of contemporary "libertarians."]

            This represented a search for understanding by a young man who had lived in Mexico for three years while he was still in grade school and who, yearning to be home, had developed a passionate love for the United States and for what he perceived as its historic ideals.

            Whereas his first book had formulated what we might call a “static model” of a free society, the next stage in Murphey’s thought was to search for the historical and sociological roots of the various social philosophies that have contended so heatedly with one another in the modern age.  Reaching back in time for answers to the question of why gigantic clusters of ideas about seemingly unrelated subjects cling together to form varied worldviews, he quickly realized that powerful forces in international intellectual culture have long felt contempt for the very ideals that he had come to hold and for the mainstream of American society.  One of the major dynamic factors within modern society, molding attitudes on a great many subjects, he saw, has been “the alienation of the intellectual,” a theme he stresses frequently in his writings.

            At the same time, his life among his contemporaries in an age of declining American values had impressed him with the spiritual and intellectual mediocrity of so much that passes as normal.  He recognized that the alienated intellectual does indeed have much to be alienated from; but that did not justify their rejection of the values with which he himself identified.

            Out of all this came Murphey’s second book, Understanding the Modern Predicament.  Why has modern civilization been so existentially unsettled, so at odds with itself?  A long view of history told Murphey that mankind enjoys the benefits and suffers the burdens of having risen only part of the way up the ladder toward civilization.  His thinking is not theological and he was therefore not led to the Augustinian doctrine of the “depravity of man”; and the balance that seems inherent in Murphey’s thinking led him instead to a “mixed view of human nature.”  Part of our problem, he reasoned, is that civilization is still in its infancy.  Moreover, we entered the modern age with few, if any, fully satisfactory paradigms.  In a series of chapters on the Greeks, the Romans, and the Middle Ages he showed how the past, even within Western Civilization, had handed down to us a rich variety of suggestions, but how each decayed without leaving any coherent culture behind it.  In the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s terms, ours has been an age of “crisis” (lack of consensus) rather than of “concord.”  Modern culture, immature, incoherent and contradictory, is seen by Murphey as in enormous confusion.  For almost two centuries, the “alienation of the intellectual” has injected controversy and conflict as the intelligentsia has sought of variety of allies against the mainstream culture.  In an additional series of chapters that are central to his analysis, Murphey examined this alienation, its causes and consequences.

            He saw, too, that the major modern social philosophies—Burkean conservatism, classical liberalism, socialist thought in its many varieties, and modern American liberalism—have been formed out of the ensuing cauldron.  It was too much to explain those philosophies in suitable detail in a single book.  This limitation occasioned the ensuing three volumes, each analyzing one or two of the major philosophies.  All four books were published in limited editions in the early and mid-1980s by the University Press of America.  The final volume—Liberal Thought in Modern America—has now been republished, in updated form and with a slightly varied title, by the Council for Social and Economic Studies, which also publishes this journal.  To the original Foreword by conservative historian Otto Scott has been added a “Preface to the 1992 edition” by Frank O’Connell, one of the eight individuals elected “distinguished members” of the Philadelphia Society.  Along with a few revisions to bring the text into conformity with the world’s fast-moving events since the mid-’80s, Murphey has added a chapter “Multiculturalism: Liberalism’s Latest and Most Threatening Assault.”  This book, of course, is the one we are reviewing here. 

What Murphey Means by ‘Liberalism’

            Murphey is quick to point out that the “liberalism” he is discussing is what passes as “liberalism” in twentieth century America.  In common with most conservatives, he distinguishes between modern “liberalism” and the classical “liberalism” of the nineteenth century in the original limited government, free market sense.  His final book, therefore, seeks to unravel the history and meaning of contemporary, not classical, “liberalism.”  Those who would read his analysis of original liberalism can find it in the second book in the series, entitled Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism or in his 1972 monograph The Principles of Classical Liberalism.           

 His Difference From Other Analyses of Modern Liberalism

            One of the more popular histories of modern liberalism is Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous With Destiny.  Goldman sees contemporary liberalism as a movement of “modern American reform” that arose after the Civil War to modify classical liberalism by addressing the complexities introduced by big business and by a more advanced industrial and technical civilization.  Goldman differentiates this liberalism from socialist thought, although admitting that on specifics there has been some, even considerable, overlap. 

            Murphey makes clear his disagreement with Goldman’s thesis.  To him, the essential feature of the “liberalism” we are talking about lies in the main intellectual culture’s disaffection from—even hatred toward—the great mainstream of American life, which has been commercial, “bourgeois,” individualistic.  Weak by themselves, the intellectuals have long sought allies—a “liberal coalition”—with every conceivable unassimilated or disaffected element.  This process began well before the rise of post-Civil War industrialization.  Originating in the early nineteenth century, it preceded, not followed, the large-scale capitalism of the late nineteenth century.  It is no coincidence, Murphey says, that movements in Europe were also expressing a revulsion against the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment, and that in Europe a corresponding “alienation of the intellectual” was giving birth to socialist thought and to the world Left.  Collectivist liberalism, according to Murphey’s analysis, is part and parcel of the Left.  This is moderated, however, by two factors: the decision by intellectuals who call themselves liberals to dissimulate so as to avoid, for the most part, any open disclosure to the American people of their socialist affinities; and the fact that many of the allies of the liberal intellectuals have been opportunists rather than convinced socialists.  The big-city machine politicians and certain religious groups and ethnic minorities, for example, have had their own reasons for supporting a program of governmental activism, and these reasons have had little to do with the alienation and socialist idealism that have moved so much of the intelligentsia.

            Another thesis about the nature of “liberalism” has been that it forms a “middle way” between capitalism and socialism.  This has been advanced by, among others, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Again, Murphey takes issue.  His analysis is based on a reading of the almost 200 volumes of the New Republic between its inception in November 1914 and early 1985, approximately 100 volumes of The Nation, and countless books written by individual authors.  His generalization from all this is that the liberal intellectual culture has precisely not been the champion of some intermediate social-political model, but rather has been socialist to the core, masked by dissimulation.  This has been manifested in a number of ways, but most notably by the intensity of its infatuation with the British Guild Socialist movement around the time of World War I and by its thirty-year idealization, between 1917 and 1947, of the Soviet system.

            A consequence of Murphey’s rejection of the customary interpretations of modern liberalism is that Murphey agrees with, and spells out in detail the evidence for, the common perception among conservatives that this new liberalism has indeed been a form of “creeping socialism.”  Conservatives will want to read his book precisely for the chapter-and-verse documentation that it gives to what they have long thought to be true.  Others will want to read it to confront the challenge that it makes to comfortable obfuscations. 

A Combination of Overviews and Specifics

            Murphey has presented his analysis at three levels of generality, believing each to be valuable to the readers’ comprehension.  The first is an overview, contained in an “interpretive essay.”  Here, the long wash of liberal intellectual history from 1820 to 1985 is reviewed in its salient features, without footnoting, so that the main aspects can be seen without immersement in the detail.

            There follows a series of three chapters that give the specifics of that same history, seen in phases.  It is here that we come upon the detail about the pre-Civil War ferment; the migration of American graduate students to Germany to study under the professors of the leftist so-called “German Historical School” in the last third of the nineteenth century; the Populist, Progressive, New Nationalist and New Freedom movements; and the reputed phases of the New Deal.  There is a discussion of the liberal funk of the 1920s, and of the “Red Decade” of the ’30s.  His discussion of liberalism during the post-World War II years is what perhaps covers the most new ground, since its main contours have not been clearly delineated in most contemporary writing.

            The remaining fourteen chapters are topical rather than chronological.  One that is included primarily for its historical color rather than for what it can contribute to the analysis tells the history of the two flagship liberal journals, the New Republic and The Nation.  These have long been fixtures in American life, and their pages form a living history of the moods and passions of the American Left.  (The reader becomes aware, however, if he did not know already, that The Nation was a leading classical liberal journal from its inception in 1865, until it was redirected leftward beginning in about 1913.  Oswald Garrison Villard, who became editor in 1918, repudiated its long-standing positions and placed it markedly on the side of the Left.)

            The subjects taken up by these topical chapters include a dissection of liberal dissimulation; an elaboration of how painstakingly liberalism has denigrated the American culture from which it is alienated; an analysis of the relativism, pragmatism and confrontational techniques by which liberalism has advanced an agenda of social change; and a discussion of the on-going process by which contemporary liberalism has sought to politicize virtually all aspects of life.  Another chapter reveals its legal philosophy, shedding considerable light on the underlying sociological and ideological forces that have driven liberalism to its various legal and Constitutional formulations.  Still another goes into detail about modern liberalism’s fascination with “big business,” which liberals have detested but have simultaneously hoped to use as a vehicle for the introduction of socialism.

            Three chapters are devoted to a detailed explication of the New Left, with its simultaneous “green, red and black revolutions.”  We doubt whether a reader can find so thorough, historically based and yet essentially brief and readable, an analysis of the New Left in any other place.  Murphey has the advantage of bringing to his analysis the insights and depth that come from seeing the New Left as simply part of a much larger context.

            Additional chapters have to do with the fascinating interplay between liberalism and international affairs.  His discussion of liberalism’s foreign policy positions is particularly helpful for understanding the many double standards applied by liberal thought.  Going further, his chapter on “Liberalism and a World in Revolution” strips bare the features of a cycle by which liberal attitudes led one country after another to tragedy during the long period of Communist expansion.  This chapter is especially valuable since, in this reviewer’s opinion, Marxist theorists are still plentiful and dangerously influential in the intellectual world, both in the “free West” and in the nations of eastern Europe now stumbling to find themselves after generations of Marxist suppression of all thought but socialist thought. 

New Insights Offered by Murphey’s Analysis

            Far from being a mere rehashing of what everyone already knows, Liberalism in Contemporary America offers a great many fresh insights beyond those already mentioned.  We won’t attempt to be exhaustive, but here are some that have caught our eye:

            1.  What an Exhaustive Reading Would Show.

            In an overall sense, of course, the book answers the intriguing question of what a conscientious conservative scholar would find if he took the trouble to read more than seventy years of the leading liberal journals.  Most of us would never find the time—and most especially not the inclination—to do that.  It was a process in which Murphey sat with dusty, crumbling volumes on his lap for months at a time, marking passages here and there, and then putting together (with the help of a word processor, without which it would hardly have been possible) compilations of notes under a wide assortment of topic headings.  Murphey’s insights are rooted in the scholarship that this drudgery entailed.  Few scholars have “paid their dues” more fully for the right to arrive at their conclusions.

            2.  An Oddity: Liberal Intellectuals’ Disdain for Liberal Politicians and for the Constituent Groups Within the Liberal Coalition.

            One of the things that surprised Murphey as he read the liberal literature was just how consistently the liberal intellectual culture has held liberalism’s political leaders in disdain.  It would be easy to think back over those years and expect that liberal intellectuals were enthusiastic, in turn, about Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, to name just a few.  We know, of course, that LBJ and Hubert Humphrey were blackened, among the intelligentsia, by the Vietnam War, so we are aware that they came to be held in rather low esteem.  But the fact has been that virtually every liberal political leader has been perceived as a disappointment by the intellectual culture, which has seen as vacillating and opportunistic their respective failures to embrace a thorough-going socialist program.  After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, it might have been expected that there would be a movement among the liberal intellectuals to declare him the great hero of American history.  There has not been; we have rarely heard of FDR in the ensuing years.  Why?  In large part because the liberal intellectual culture, far to the left of FDR, has never thought that well of him.

            This introduces us to a feature that has been prominent within American liberalism since World War II: the clear difference between the popular liberal media and the liberal intellectual culture.  “Pop liberalism,” Murphey found, has been much more upbeat both as to liberalism’s political leaders and as to the whole liberal undertaking.  The media loved JFK, for example, elevating the Kennedys to virtual royalty; but the liberal intellectual culture took a dim view of him.

            The same phenomenon has occurred with regard to the various constituencies that have joined liberalism over the years as part of the ever-evolving “liberal coalition.”  These groups have been welcomed in some ways, and their causes championed.  But Murphey found that the liberal intellectual culture has taken most of them with a large grain of salt.  Has organized labor been its darling?  By no means; to the intellectual culture, American labor has disappointingly lacked fire in its belly.  The big-city political machines?  They’ve been seen in realistic hues, with no hint of rose-coloring.  The bashing of Mayor Daley in 1968 was just a more fervid expression than normal of a long-standing contempt.

            3.  The Incongruity of a Magisterial Liberal Media combined with Deep Intellectual Despondency.

            The division between an upbeat, hard-charging media and the intellectual culture has been visible with regard to the overall mood within the American Left.  To judge from the many waves of media fads and enthusiasms that have broken on the American shore for many years, liberalism is alive and well, full of animal spirits that are willing continuously to challenge what is seen as the uncaring venality of mainstream American life.  The stream of muckraking exposes and romantic strivings (exemplified, for example, by the red ribbons worn by movie personalities to show solidarity with “AIDS victims”) has been endless.  But all the while, the intellectual culture, as Murphey found it, has been in despair over the chances of a “radical reformation” of America.  Long faces and forlorn spirits—these are what mainly have peered out of the serious literature during virtually all of the decades covered by Murphey’s study.

            This dejection is at odds with the impression given by the liberal media.  American culture is decaying in ways that conservatives fear are irredeemable, and government continues, even during the administrations of Republican presidents elected under the color of conservatism, to continue its Leviathan growth; but the “liberal juggernaut” still remains unable to capture the imagination of mainstream Americans.  The liberal intellectuals recognize this.  There has hardly been a time when the liberal intelligentsia has not felt despair over its chances of bringing socialism and “true enlightenment” to the American people.

            4.  Many Proposed Routes to  Socialism.

            Despite this despair, liberal intellectuals have never given up proposing alternative routes to socialism.  If conservatives think, in their less reflective moments, that the road to socialism can only be reached through an ever-expanding federal government, they are mistaken.  Liberals, Murphey reveals, have been much more inventive than that.

            True, the aggrandizement of federal power has been a major feature of the liberal agenda.  But another route to socialism as seen by liberals has been through “river valley authorities.”  At one time, liberalism had the idea of instituting a TVA-like agency in every feasible river valley in the United States—but with greatly expanded powers.  (TheTVA itself turned out to be a wimp compared to what liberal writers wanted it to be.  They wanted government ownership of towns, barber shops, restaurants, the entire economy.)  The theme at another time was “central planning.”  And one that has been especially persistent has been to build socialism from the ground up through cooperatives and employee ownership.  This was the central focus from approximately 1910 through 1925, a period during which liberalism championed “industrial democracy” patterned after British Guild Socialism.  Employee ownership has come back into prominence within the European and American Left since World War II, with a sizeable literature urging its use as a militant socialist vehicle.  At the same time, the federal government has been underwriting the growth of employee ownership with massive tax preferences to Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs).  Until Murphey raised his voice against it in a recent series of articles, these moves by the Left went largely unapprehended.

            5.  Big Business as a Route to Socialism.

            Those who are well versed in the history of modern liberal thought are aware, of course, that that thought has long been divided in its attitude toward large-scale corporate capitalism.  The New Freedom school, championed by Louis Brandeis and Woodrow Wilson, wanted to break up big business, using the government as a referee to assure a competitive market.  In itself, this is not inconsistent with classical liberalism, at least as understood by some of its adherents; but Brandeis wanted cooperatives and employee-owned firms eventually to replace proprietor-owned firms in the market, and this put him in line with the Guild Socialist school.  On the other hand, Herbert Croly (the first editor of the New Republic) and Theodore Roosevelt wanted to encourage corporations to become ever larger—and then to put them under the wing of government.  This is why the New Republic was initially so enthused about the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933; its editors thought FDR was linking firms into industry-wide planning councils under government leadership.  Since World War II, there has been much emphasis within the European Left and American liberalism on making corporations quasi-public by placing union, government and consumer representatives on their boards of directors.  “Co-determination,” as it is called, is a way of deprivatizing the most common form of business entity in modern market economies.  All of this is explored in detail by Murphey in his chapter on “Liberalism and the Modern Corporation.”

            6.  Liberal Cycles of Activity and Exhaustion.

            One of the more intriguing parts of Murphey’s analysis is that he discovered a recurring pattern in the mass psychology of liberalism.  His perception of the pattern, he is quick to explain, is an empirical generalization rather than the product of any a priori expectation he may have had that there would necessarily be discernible patterns.  The history of liberal thought shows periods of restless yearning for activity, followed by heightened militancy and activism, leading eventually however to frustration and exhaustion and quiescence before at last the yearning for activity builds up again.  This cycle goes back as far as 1820, and is reflected in the writings of Emerson.  Its most dramatic appearance began in 1956 with the yearnings that germinated the New Left and led eventually to the frenetic radicalism of the Sixties and the exhausted inward-turning of the Seventies.  Yet another example came before World War I, when yearning-for-activity turned into the Muckraker movement and Greenwich Village radicalism, and continued into the exhausted “lostness” of the Twenties.

            7.  The Relationship Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism.

            If the analyses made by Goldman and Schlesinger are to be credited, liberalism is a democratic and essentially anti-totalitarian movement, pure and simple.  But Murphey found nothing pure and simple about it.  Instead, he found a schizophrenia in which ostensibly civil-liberties-minded modern liberals have looked with wide-eyed wonder at Soviet communism, or have flirted with the militant intolerance of a Herbert Marcuse when he urged the repression of all conservative thought, not forgetting those who today seek with considerable success to impose a stifling “political correctness” within our academic world.  These episodes have, he says, provided a window by which we can understand the totalitarian propensities that lie at the heart of intellectual alienation.  At the same time, the desire generally to remain acceptable within the American context, as well as the tactical imperatives of seeking social and institutional change, have led liberals to embrace, most of the time, an ethos of ever-greater participativeness and democracy by which the constituent elements in the liberal coalition could gain “empowerment.”

            Not all liberals are alike on these factors, Murphey has found.  Many take seriously the democratic rhetoric, and refuse to follow the others into their periodic intolerances.  This is why “political correctness” is opposed on our campuses today by many professors on the Left, as well as by conservatives.  One of the strong points in Murphey’s outlook as a serious scholar is that he is able to see such differences and to point them out honestly.  He is not neutral in the ideological battles of the modern age; but scholarly integrity remains his highest value, and he sees no incongruity between that and the most reasoned, and hopefully effective, defense of a free society. 


            Liberalism in Contemporary America is a seminal book that—unless it is successfully ignored—should lead readers to a better understanding of the liberal intellectual tradition that has been a major destructive force in American history throughout the nineteenth and, more especially, the twentieth century.  So important is the analysis contained in this book that it is hard to imagine how anyone unfamiliar with the history it recounts and the issues it raises may in the future be regarded as politically educated.  One might facetiously observe that it is unfortunate that Murphey has not obfuscated the subject by wrapping it in obscurity and mystery so as to impress those for whom such qualities are essential to true intellectuality.  To this reviewer, however, the truth is quite the reverse.  He is clearly to be commended highly for relying upon the power of explicit narrative and clearly presented logic, and for his ability to record the history and goals of contemporary American liberalism in highly readable form.